- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 25, 2001

During their presidential years, two of the principal founders of the American enterprise, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, became bitter political rivals who seemed to disagree on almost everything.

But in later years, through a steady correspondence with each other that is some of the most eloquent literature on American ideas and ideals in existence, they rediscovered the fact that on the really big issues, they had much in common, including, importantly, a commitment to liberty of conscience.

In that correspondence, Adams expresses copious admiration for Jefferson's work in authoring Virginia's Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, which became the template for the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. And Jefferson writes Adams to compliment him on coming out of retirement briefly in 1820 to attend a state constitutional convention at which he urged a similar measure.

“Books that cannot bear examination certainly ought not to be established as divine inspiration by penal laws,” as Adams put it in an 1825 letter to Jefferson at Monticello. (Eerily, both men died on July 4, 1826, 50 years to the day after they signed the Declaration of Independence.

The proper relationship between government and faith is worth pondering anew these days. The United States and the West have been attacked by a bunch of hateful fanatics claiming to act in the name of religion and harbored by a murderous regime in which there was no distinction between religious faith and official state power. It was widely thought that the Taliban, hardened by their extreme Islamic beliefs, would be a tough foe. Instead, the Taliban were quickly put to flight.

Daisy-cutter bombs will do that to people, even fanatics. But more important may be the fact that religious fanaticism tends to be a thinly-rooted tree, while liberty of conscience, which may easily be interpreted as a weakness, provides deep soil for both religious and political beliefs.

George Washington couldn't imagine the survival of democracy in a society that had strayed from religion. But he, like the other Framers, knew their history. They understood that religion was a powerful, and therefore potentially dangerous, force. And as men of the Enlightenment, they saw their brand of Christianity as mandating liberty of conscience. “Almighty God hath created the mind free,” Jefferson asserted in the preamble to his act for religious freedom.

That needn't mean we should expunge “In God We Trust” from our currency or even ban prayers at graduation ceremonies. These don't amount to establishment of religion in any meaningful sense. It's also silly to liken the religious atrocities of the Taliban or al Qaeda to the evangelism of America's religious right, as some commentators have. The last few months have shown us what religious fanaticism really looks like.

But as the French observer, Alexis de Tocqueville, noted in a visit to the young republic in the 1830s, religion flourishes in America precisely because it was left mostly to the private consciences of its citizens. And in Europe, where official establishment of religion is still widespread (Germans, for example, must pay a tax to the government for upkeep of churches unless they specifically renounce religious affiliation) religious practice has diminished almost to the vanishing point. There is something about the human mind that doesn't like to be told what to think.

For that reason, one can be hopeful that Muslim societies will some day find their way toward a more benign mixture of state and faith, if not a complete separation of the two. There already are important exceptions, such as Turkey. Recent reports from Iran suggest that Iranians have had their fill of rule by ayatollah. Perhaps the experience of bloody Afghanistan will cause a rethinking of the issue throughout Islam.

But whatever the future, this is certainly an appropriate time for Americans to count not only our religious blessings, but the genius of the Framers in constructing a system in which religion and government are not allowed to dictate to each other. The result is a far stronger faith in both than our enemies seemed to believe. In the end, it was theocracy that folded and freedom of religion that prevailed.


Tom Bray is a Detroit News columnist.

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